Q&A with Sarah Johnson

RFL Academy alum Sarah R. Johnson is a Carbondale-based climate change and environmental educator (though you might also know her as the founder of the Carbondale Renegade Marching Band!). Through her business, Wild Rose Education, she designs and facilitates workshops, courses, and programs at the state, national, and international levels, including the award winning Youth Water Leadership Program, and Project Learning Tree Canada’s Climate Change and Forests curriculum.

We chatted with Sarah about how RFL gave her the confidence to leave a full-time position for a freelance career. More recently, the leadership skills she developed at RFL have led Sarah to serve as a mentor for nine young women across the Africa, Arab, and Asia Pacific regions as part of the World Association for Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS).

Roaring Fork Leadership: Let’s start with how you ended up in the Roaring Fork Valley?

Sarah Johnson: I came to western Colorado in 2004 to work at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park as a as a park ranger. After a couple of years, I had fallen in love with the western slope and I wanted to stay. There were limited jobs, but I found ACES (the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies) and started work there in 2006 as a naturalist.

RFL: Tell me about your career journey as an environmental educator?

SJ: At the time, ACES’ structure was that you couldn’t stick around very long. So, I was there for a year and did education programs and naturalist programs. And then I actually left the valley for six months to work for the North Cascades Institute in Washington State. While I was there, I got a call from Tim O’Keefe, at the Roaring Fork Conservancy asking me to apply for a brand new position as Education Outreach Coordinator. I did that for eight years. In 2015, I quit that job. I was in the middle of doing a hybrid remote/in-person graduate school program and I did not have a plan. But within a matter of weeks, I became an independent contractor working out of my house and soon thereafter, I got an office at the [Carbondale] Third Street Center. Within the first year of leaving my job at the Roaring Fork Conservancy, I started Wild Rose Education and have been working as a freelance environmental and climate change educator ever since.

RFL: How did you come to RFL?

SJ: I did RFL in 2010/2011. I think I’ve always been committed to growing as a person and being the best version of me professionally and personally. I had heard really good things about RFL, but I was working at the Roaring Fork Conservancy, which isn’t exactly lucrative, so I couldn’t afford the tuition. Instead, I made a list of people who had gone out of their way in some capacity to complement the work I had done in the community and then reached out asking them to sponsor my participation in RFL Academy.

RFL: Wow, that’s commitment! How did RFL play a role in your career transition?

SJ: Doing RFL showed me that I could create a new story. I had control of my narrative. And I had the capacity to create whatever story — whatever life — I want to create. I think that gave me the confidence to do things that I love. And I’ve been running with that since I graduated. I created the Carbondale Renegade Marching Band in 2012 — it was this goofy thing, but it was also community-building.

In terms of specific skills, what I find myself coming back to is project management. I’ll be part of a team working on a project and I’m always the person who wants to clearly define our goals and objectives.

Sarah Johnson, of Wild Rose Education, on the Arctic sea ice near Utqiagvik, Alaska during a Float Your Boat deployment in April 2023. One of her contract gigs is coordinating the Arctic outreach Float Your Boat project for the International Arctic Buoy Programme. Photo by Lloyd Pikok, UIC-Science

RFL: In your work as an environmental educator and beyond, how has RFL shaped your leadership journey?

SJ: After RFL, I served as an advisor for two different RFL cohorts, which gave me mentoring skills. I’ve used those skills with young adults, both here in the valley, as well as around the world. I’m a mentor for a small group of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts from six different countries, coaching them through leadership development and project management skills so that they can conduct civic projects in their communities on issues like mental health, environment, teen pregnancy, menstrual hygiene etc. So, there’s this direct link between my experience at RFL and now, doing a similar thing, but in the context of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS) at a global level.

RFL: Tell me about your work with the WAGGGS?

SJ: Last summer, I was selected to serve on the Leadership Practice Core Mission team of the WAGGGS. It’s a volunteer role where I support the work of helping member organizations and their leaders understand the WAGGGS Leadership Model and integrate it into their programming, training, and non-formal education.

Then, a few months later, I was selected to serve as a mentor for 9 young women in their 20s in the Africa, Arab, and Asia Pacific regions as they participated in the Juliette Low Seminar and completed their 100 Girls Projects. It’s kind of like a cross between being a troop leader and coaching an RFL civic project team. We’ve been meeting regularly since October 2022 and many of us will gather in person in August in Ghana at a WAGGGS World Center to continue our leadership journey, grow in sisterhood, and celebrate the work of each young woman completing her 100 Girls Project. These projects are civic projects that must reach at least 100 girls and address an issue/barrier that is relevant to teenage girls in their region.

Being a global experience, it’s been expansive, eye opening, incredibly challenging, and unbelievably rewarding. I’ve been learning so much — and using so much from my RFL experience as a student and as a team coach.